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Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Talk in Florida



A while back an author I love and respect emailed me to invite me to a conference he'd be hosting in at a luxurious resort in Florida.

If you know me you know exactly what my very first thought was: BIRDS!

I've never been to Florida. I could see birds I'd never see in New Jersey!

My second thought was, of course, I have done nothing to deserve such a fairy tale invitation.

My third thought was, how can I ever repay him?

My fourth thought, that superseded all others, was, BIRDS!

"Yes! I'd love to attend your conference in Florida!"

I had a fifth thought, too.

I am not a Trump supporter.  

I hoped that Hillary Clinton would win the election, and that I would attend the conference as a member of a winning team.

I had been told that I'd be part of a panel, and that I'd speak for seven minutes.

I had prepared my talk before the election results were in. I just sat down and imagined that a Republican Trump supporter were seated in front of me, and I spoke to that person from my heart.

Election night I was haunted by a fear of the Bradley Effect, James Comey's violation of the Hatch Act, that may have thrown the election, and the closeness of the polls. I woke up early and turned on the radio. All I heard was the BBC announcer saying "He will…" The masculine nominative pronoun. I knew that Trump had won and was now steering the car in which I was a passenger. I would be leaving for the conference in two days. I would be surrounded by Trump supporters, including a man I love and respect and to whom I owe a great deal. I was so torn.

On arriving at Palm Beach airport Friday morning, I was struck by the heat and humidity. An African American man in his sixties from Connecticut drove me to the hotel. He said to me, "I looked at her, and I thought to myself, she can't be going to this hotel."

"Why?" I asked. I wondered what I was doing wrong that already marked me as different.

"Well, for one thing, you are carrying a backpack."

Expensive sports cars with gleaming paint traveled the trash-free and eggshell-smooth roads. Buildings looked like toys in a miniature train set village: without any of the dings and pockmarks accrued surviving the insults of daily life. Even the palm trees appeared to meet with a groomer once a week – each one was lustrous and symmetrical. I'd simply never in my life been around this kind of money.  

My plane had been delayed on the runway for ninety minutes. I was cramped and really wanted to get to my room and decompress before my talk. The desk clerks, all of whom were very young, excruciatingly polite and model-perfect, apologized: they had no room for me just yet.

I stood there, carrying my stigmatizing backpack, and glanced off to my left. I saw Donna Brazile. My head went, "Oh, there's Donna Brazile," as if she were someone I had gone to high school with. Then I realized who I was looking at – the Democratic National Committee Chairwoman – and her connection to my tension. I immediately walked over to her.

"He is like one of my own children," Brazile was saying to a handsome man in a suit. Evidently they were close friends.

I didn't care. I barged right in. I grabbed her hands. I made no attempt to introduce myself.

"I am so sorry that she lost."

"I am too," she said.

I told her that when one of my acquaintances became a Trump supporter, though he had previously been respectful to me, he suddenly called me an "immigrant." We talked for a few minutes. We hugged twice. I let her go.

I slipped into a lady's room and changed from traveling clothes into the clothes I had brought for the talk. I wore a white, pink, and black floral scarf one of my best students had given me. He told me that I was like his mother. He was a Muslim, from Pakistan. I brushed my hair.

I carried my pack into the room where I was told I'd be speaking and rested it against the wall. An unsmiling man speaking in harsh manner told me that I would not be speaking. I swallowed my heartache. Another man, much nicer, and more in the know, told me that I would be speaking. I brightened.

Public speaking is one of the most common fears. When I speak publicly, I feel my gears whir smoothly. It's a good feeling to me, like what I get from exercise or cooking. One reason I love teaching so much, and look forward to going to work. So, though I was nervous about being the lone Hillary Clinton voter two days after her loss to Trump, I was very happy to climb up to the podium and take my seat behind microphone.

Here's the text of my talk:

***

"Love is stronger than death."

Song of Songs chapter 8, verse 6.

The New American Bible translation:

"Set me as a seal on your heart,

stern as death is love,

relentless as the nether world is devotion"

I am a teacher, and I love my students.

I am a Catholic and I love my church.

I am an American and I love my country.

I am a Jersey Girl and I love my city, Paterson, America's first planned industrial city, once Silk City, now North Jersey's heroin hub. Since 2011, three men have been murdered directly in front of my building.

My students don't know who the Founding Fathers are. They have no idea of the uniqueness of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution or the scientific method or Western emphasis on the individual. They are tabula rasa on the Greek Miracle. They take cultural relativism as dogma it would be anathema to question. If they have heard of the Crusades or Jihad, they believe that they are identical, except that the Crusades were worse. They believe that Christianity is responsible for misogyny; they invent Bible verses to support this assumption. After the Boston Marathon bombing, one of my students spoke to me with a smug smile on her face. "Oh, all these silly Islamophobic white Americans thought that Muslims bombed the marathon! In fact it turns out that they were Russians!"

I am an adjunct. I have no job security. No one has my back. Most college hours in the US right now are taught by adjuncts.

At one college where I taught, I used to stand outside a classroom waiting to make use of it. The professor who used the class before me delivered his lectures as I waited outside.

He was teaching a basic grammar class. Our students need basic grammar classes.

He would sit on his desk, never circulate among the students and harangue for hours about how stupid Americans are because they don't have socialized medicine and how superior Europe is because it does. I never saw him teach basic grammar. His students were captives.

I go home and turn on the radio and listen to right wing radio talk.

This right wing radio talk show host lives in this solar system here.

My students live in this solar system over here.

The two solar systems are separated by tens of millions of miles of cold, silent and empty space.

I introduced one of my students to black conservative author Shelby Steele, who says that African Americans must forgo welfare and get ahead through self-reliance. This student emphatically insisted that Steele was correct.

One of my students, totally spontaneously, with no prompting from me, said, "I wish it were cool to be patriotic. I wish our professors encouraged us to feel part of something bigger than ourselves."

One of my students insisted to me that immigrants should leave aside their native cultures and assimilate to American culture.

The student who loved Shelby Steele was a young black man, who considers himself a radical. He wears dreadlocks and he has been in prison.

The student who voiced a yearning for patriotism is a Muslim. Decades ago, her family entered this country as refugees from Syria.

The student who insisted on immigrants' assimilating to American culture is herself an Hispanic immigrant.

These students recognize that their professors are selling them, and reward them for, Political Correctness. They suspect that PC is somehow fake.

But they are also convinced that Republicans hate them. And in recent days that conviction has become stronger.

This gap of cold and empty space does not need to exist.

I love the truth. And I love my students. And I love America's future that will be after I am gone.

And I need allies whose work is based not on hate but on love.

***

As soon as the panel wrapped up, several audience members approached my seat on the podium and spoke to me with great urgency. They wanted to know what they could do to help Paterson.

Throughout the weekend, participants at this very conservative conference approached me on their own initiative. They often approached me with real passion on their faces, focus, and intensity. They often took my hands as they spoke. They said variations of these words:

I heard your talk. You said something important. We need to do something about this. What can we do?

I have to tell you – these people are very different from me. Obviously they have more money than I do; I live in Paterson, and they can afford to attend a conference at a luxurious hotel. Most are more conservative, though some, not all, confessed to me (and I will not reveal their names) that they, too, had misgivings about Trump.

But what was abundantly clear was that these people want to make the world a better place, and are willing to dream outside the box and do hard work to put earth beneath their airborne castles.

I have not been in a room so full of idealistic, activist people since I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.

I loved the heart, the compassion, the willingness to risk, and the activism in these people.

Those gaps that force us as humans apart from one another: yes, we need to be brave and acknowledge that they exist. But there's more to be done after that acknowledgement.

If we take the steps to traverse those gaps, we discover that we are all people, that we all are made in the image and likeness of God, and we can find common ground, no matter how different we are. And if we are willing to be a little bit more brave, we find out that we can work with each other to make the world a better place.

The rest of the conference? Surreal. I'm simply not used to such luxurious surroundings. Of the gourmet food, the ornate architecture, and the many hands eager to serve, the one thing I wish I could carry in my backpack as I travel back to Jersey is the sheets. I honestly had no idea that sheets that feel this way even exist.

Every time I turned around I saw a celebrity. My best celebrity experience: sitting next to an author I admire during dinner one night. I asked him what I thought was a very simple yes / no question. He plunged into a lengthy and elaborate reply, one he appeared to hope I would retort. As I watched him, I flashed on being a kid in a high school cafeteria, and finding the one boy there who would have a serious conversation with me about current events. Eventually I'd develop a crush on this boy. I really didn't want to develop a crush on this famous author so I weaseled my way out of the conversation. Discretion is the better part of valor.

Less happily, I found myself standing next to an author who is even more astoundingly thin in person than she is on TV. I mentioned this to someone else who promptly reported that this very author had just mocked "fat girls" in a twitter post. I am a fat girl. I know that verbal bullying of, and social contempt for fat girls causes much damage.

I'll be honest; I thought of just putting down my champagne flute, turning to her, and smacking her. Another part of me insists that smacking people is wrong. Perhaps I could have "said something." But thousands are "saying something" in responses to this tweet. I wonder if any of what is said will be heard. She identifies as a Christian. Perhaps if someone were to mention to her that the combination of her fame and her cruelty causes people to conclude negative and false things about Jesus, she might change. One can pray.

I left to walk along the Atlantic beach behind the hotel.

I gazed at the ocean and thought about a poem I wanted to share with everyone at the conference, Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach."

"The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits…
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in…
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."

In a small patch of ocean, the hotel shone high beam lights. The lights penetrated one patch of water, while all around was darkness. Only the frothing caps of waves caught the moonlight and glimmered white over vast blackness. Only distant fishing boats and Orion competed with the moon.

The square patch of illuminated ocean water was turquoise and clear. It truly was an idyllic scene.  

I studied the water, as I always do, looking for sharks. If not sharks, U-boats. Pirates. Aquatic Kossaks!!!

I chided myself for being such an Eastern European, always seeking the dark side, even in an idyllic setting.

Well, guess what I saw, just at the line where the waves were breaking, just at the point where my knees would be had I not been wearing slacks and had I gone wading???

Yes! A shark!

Sleek, menacing, gliding, not needful of any John Williams' Jaws theme to enhance the terror it aroused in me, even though I was firmly earthbound, and not even moistened by the ocean spray.

It moved in front of me, I chased in its direction, it turned and moved back in front of me, and I was able to watch it for a couple of minutes. At one point its dorsal fin did break the surface.

I birdwatched every chance I got. I saw wood storks, American egrets, great blue herons, yellow crowned night herons, kingfishers, solitary sandpipers, palm warblers, turkey vultures, red-shoulder hawk, red-bellied woodpecker, boat-tailed grackles, fish crow, white ibis, brown pelicans, Egyptian geese, cormorants, terns (couldn't identify), and feral parrots: Amazona viridigenalis.

This morning, Sunday, as I was watching the parrots, a little electric vehicle with the word "Security" written on its side pulled up alongside me. An intense looking Hispanic man got out. "Are you a guest at this hotel?" he demanded.

"Yes."

"There's been a phone call. Someone reported someone walking in and out of the bushes."

That's me. Walking in and out of bushes looking at birds. For this they had to phone security? Why not just ask me?  I could have turned the person on to birdwatching!

This morning a conference goer said to me, "You are an enigma. You look like a leftwing hippie, but you have conservative ideas."

After the conference wrapped up, I just had time to make it to mass. As I was walking toward Saint Edward Roman Catholic Church, I reflected on the weekend conference I had been so nervous about, and had now completed. I had had to navigate my own anxiety about being around people different from myself, and I had found those people lovable and admirable. I had been worried about being out-of-place in a wealthy environment. I was repeatedly reminded that I was out-of-place, but I survived. I had been worried about my talk, and it went better than I could have dreamed.

In reflecting as I walked to church, I remembered a line I learned in Saint Francis grammar school: "Deus meus et omnia." It was Saint Francis' motto. It is Latin for "My God and my all." I had liked that line very much as a child. It informed me that if you keep God first, everything else, no matter how scary or chaotic, falls into place.

I took my place in a pew upfront and gazed up at the ceiling. It had an Italian-renaissance style coffered ceiling comparable to the ceiling at the luxury hotel. I had gazed at the hotel's ceiling as I was gazing at this ceiling; appreciating its beauty, and tsk tsking over how expensive it must be.


My eyes moved to words written on the beam: "Deus Meus et Omnia." I was astounded. I had just been thinking those words, those words I learned in Saint Francis grammar school, the school named after the saint who served "Lady Poverty." I don't think I've seen those words written anywhere since I learned them in what, fourth, fifth grade? And here I think them as my North Star for this weekend even as I walk to mass, mass in a church with a – to me – decadently ornate ceiling, a ceiling that reminds me, through its decadent art, that in no matter the setting, no matter the company, God is the north star, who guides our navigation. 

I'm going to be relying on that motto a lot during the next four years, I suspect. 

2 comments:

  1. wonderful as always. And as for the next four years I know that God is on His throne and in charge of everything as He has been for the last 8 (and the hundreds and thousands before). That's what keeps me going and kept me going when it seemed the sky was falling.

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